Interpreters are being killed. Help save a life

Personal testimony by an interpreter who worked with ISAF forces in Afghanistan convinced me that more must be done to get governments to act responsibly and safeguard the lives of people who serve th

Interpreter being punished (engraving found by D. Stephane in Thanjavur - formerly Tanjore - India)

Interpreters often go unnoticed, heard but not seen. But that depiction is turned on its head in conflict zones where interpreters are commonly members of the local community and their identities known no matter what precautions may be taken. Often seen as collaborators, they – and by extension their families - are vulnerable to retaliation both during and after their time of service.

I had read about this, but these simple truths acquired urgency for me when I recently heard direct testimony from people who have worked in war zones. I was in Nuremberg the first week in July representing Brazil at a meeting of the AIIC Council. It was an important meeting for the association as this is the year of our 60th anniversary. On the last day our colleagues of the German region very kindly organized a seminar on interpreters in conflict zones. The choice of venue was particularly fitting: the courthouse where the Nuremberg trials where held.

The Courtoom

When I walked into the courtroom I was surprised by how small it was. How did all the defendants, prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, guards, journalists and, last but not least, interpreters fit in this minute room? This impression quickly vanished, however, in the exhibit room the moment our guide reminded us, once again, of the merciless atrocities that had been tried there.

After I had taken a seat in the middle of the courtroom, which the German judiciary today uses as a regular courtroom, and just before the meeting began, the panel moderator Rainer Huhle issued a fateful housekeeping rule that dropped a weight on my shoulders: "We kindly request everyone to please put away your cameras and recording devices as, for security reasons, this conference may not be recorded."

But …  wait a minute! Wasn't this the very same room where the world was able to witness the trials? Where journalists had access to all the proceedings and where the Court kindly gave the defendants sun glasses to protect their eyes from the very bright lights in the room, set up especially for the press?

We were later told that the session could not be recorded because this would entail a death risk for our fellow interpreter K.R., who had worked for ISAF forces in Afghanistan. I had read various posts on Interpreting the World and Interpreters in Conflict Zones but I had not fully perceived the importance of initiatives to help remedy the situation. Reading numbers on something that is happening in a remote place is quite different from hearing the same words coming out of the mouth of a person who fears for his/her life and those of their family and co-workers.

Right now, somewhere in the world an interpreter is being killed! Once again, just as so many years ago, the walls of the famous Nuremberg Courthouse have to endure the atrocities of war. However, instead of prosecuting the offenders this time, the "allies" are the ones who are neglecting to save the lives of thousands of people who worked for them. The ISAF forces are going back home, leaving behind the many interpreters (and other professionals for that matter) who made their work possible. They are leaving them there to face death.


It seems that governments have not learned the lesson and are blatantly ignoring the consequences of war and the ensuing death toll. Bertham Hacker, a former member of the German Federal Army, told us that armies used interpreters but never gave a thought to what could happen to them once their mission was completed. He elaborated on the number of times interpreters actually saved the lives of military personnel. And he reminded us that the army has a rule: never leave a fellow soldier behind on the battlefield.  This is certainly an honorable rule, but what about their interpreters?

Alain Boy, also a member of the Armed Forces, took the floor to emphasize the importance of interpreters and how very often they go above and beyond the call of duty to help the forces, thus saving the lives of many soldiers. He added that interpreters also teach them extremely important cultural aspects, and ended by stressing that something has to be done to ensure they will be well taken care of.

The fear I heard in the voice of the interpreter, however, made it clear to me that the two speakers with military backgrounds do not reflect the opinion of the institutions they were part of. His fear made me shiver. I thought to myself: It cannot be that, so many years later, we find ourselves once again in this historic building and will allow thousands of people to be murdered while doing nothing to prevent it.

AIIC President Linda Fitchett reminded us that attention was given to this matter only when journalists were kidnapped, and that an international outcry was heard only after Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacamo and Ajmal Naqshbandi were captured in Afghanistan in 2007. The life of the journalist was saved when he was exchanged for a Taliban prisoner. But Ajmal, his interpreter, did not merit the same fate and was later killed by his kidnappers.

Linda Fitchett also informed us of shocking figures and cases, although it need not be mentioned that there is no official registry on this, or if the governments and military do have one, they are not disclosing it. Nevertheless, the figures cited in the press based on information reported by the contracting agency, which only cover US troops, show that up until 2009, 360 translators had been killed and 1,200 injured.


On my flight back home the day after the seminar, I knew something had to be done to put a stop to this.  We have proof that governments and the armed forces have not done enough to ensure the safety of those they hire, thus we must find a way of making them do more, of accepting their responsibility.

I urge you to join in this endeavor. Please make sure you “like” the Interpreters in Conflict Zones Facebook page and recommend it to as many people as possible. Also consider contacting local associations, human rights organizations and your own government on this matter.

This is your chance to make a difference, a difference that may save a life!

More to explore on the AIIC website

AIIC, Red T and FIT introduce the first conflict zone field guide

Open letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel

Interview: Maya Hess of Red T

The AIIC resolution on interpreters in war and conflict zones

Interpreters in conflict zones: the limits of neutrality

Recommended citation format:
Richard LAVER. "Interpreters are being killed. Help save a life". July 30, 2013. Accessed June 4, 2020. <>.

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Alcor Castilian CRISAN


Here is a recent article from the BBC:

Sadly, it could have been entitled "The Disposable Interpreters from Afghanistan"...

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Nyssa Fiona GREGORY


Jonathan, I would hate to see this debate confined to a mere dialogue, especially un dialogue de sourds. But I have to take issue with the whole premise now of your position. It sounds rather like the "bad apple" theory. In a nutshell: amnesty the lot, even if a few bad apples slip through in the process. It's how a war criminal made it all the way up to the position of UN Secretary-General. By all means, if some, most or even all of these "interpreters" acted in good faith and are blameless of torture or crimes against humanity, then far be it for me to argue that they should not be given political asylum - though AIIC and reputable interpreters in general are supposed, publicly at least, to stay out of politics as a rule of thumb (this is not staying "above" the fray; it is staying "out" of it, which is not quite the same thing). The correct approach to such a situation, especially in one as contentious as the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, is for national jurisdictions to review each petition on its individual merits, rather than engage in a sweeping amnesty. Frankly, when I read - on respected western human rights websites, not Al Jazeera or jihadist propaganda outlets - the reports of "interpreters" anally raping teenage inmates, pinning their hands to the floor with their jackboots while the victims are brutalised under interrogation and actually perpetrating brutal interrogation themselves, all while in the employ of the same private security companies to which similar activities have been outsourced in Afghanistan, I really have to wonder what on earth AIIC is getting itself into. And are we to view national armies as any more reputable than the private security companies when there are attested cases of murder and torture by their soldiers in the same countries - some of them having come to court in high-profile trials? I am only too aware that even the UN is now a target of jihadist groups, most recently in the Syria-Lebanon-Israel border area (and let's not forget the slaughter at the Qana compound in 1996). It's why we have to spend long (unremunerated) hours performing online security tests just to perform a 1- or 2-day mission in Rome or Geneva. But this is not the issue. I am also well aware that there was a debate on this issue at the Assembly and that a majority voted in favour. However, given the bigger picture and the documented abuses to which I have already referred, I reserve the right to state, publicly or privately, "Not in my name".

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Jonathan H. SANDERS


So Nyssa, if I've understood you correctly, you are really asking is whether we should politically vouch for people who may be accomplices or perpetrators of torture and murder.

If individual interpreters were arrested based on some kind of probable cause or evidence and subsequently brought to trial, I might agree with your framing of the situation. I can even give you a concrete example. When Zakeria Kandahari, former interpreter for US forces was arrested on charges of murder and torture, it was simply stated on the Facebook page that we would monitor the situation. We made no affirmation of support, nor did we speculate about his guilt or innocence. Had we done that or had it been our usual practice, I would agree that it could potentially compromise us and would have moral implications.

This is a far cry from we actually do address politically with letters of support and the like. The fact is that there is an entire vocational group bearing our name who is presumed guilty and punishable by death, not on the basis of their individual actions, but rather on the basis of who employed them. You asked me if I could say that each and every ICZ was innocent, but I ask you, can you honestly say that each and every one of them is guilty? And even if they were, shouldn't that actually be proven as opposed to the shoot-now-ask-questions-never approach which seems to have caught on? You say that our reputations can maintain unscathed if we work in "good faith, with linguistic and intellectual rigour and with totally impartial fidelity to the stated word". I'll come back to that later, but for the sake of argument, let us assume that it is true. Does that mean we should stand by and do nothing when other interpreters who may work exactly the same way are portrayed as guilty and deserving of death by default?

We both seem to agree that the image of this group impacts us for better or worse. Where we seem to differ is how much it impacts us and what our response should be. While it is true that we are AIIC and not AII, I disagree that we are so distant from the plight of ICZ that we can essentially ignore it. It reads like you are assuming that as conference interpreters, we are "above the fray" by virtue of our status and reputations and that we can chose whether to be involved politically or not. The very employers of ICZ however, (namely governments and international organizations) are our employers as well. It is naive to think that we are seen by everyone as these harmless, neutral nomads flitting from conference to conference. Many people in the world do not have a better opinion of international organizations than they do of any army. For years, we have heard about the rise in attacks directly targeting even humanitarian workers in conflict areas. If people target employees of those organizations based on that fact alone, we are directly involved and should have a response to the phenomenon at hand. It's not just a political issue; it's a labor issue as well. Any employer should protect its employees from work-related mortal danger. Seeing as the employers involved are ours as well, and the people concerned are in our same category, it's hard for me to accept that we have no interest in getting involved.

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Nyssa Fiona GREGORY


Jonathan, I am all for AIIC advocating ethical behaviour in the interpreters' "global public square". Where I have a problem is when it intervenes at what is essentially a political level on ethical grounds that are dubious, to put it mildly. You rightly refer to "conference interpreters". AIIC is AIIC, not AII. And it cannot speak for or act on behalf of or intercede for all interpreters in all areas of the profession. Sadly, the term "interpreter" in conflict areas is no longer synonymous with impartiality or neutrality - or, in the case of Abu Ghraib, even the most elementary standards of humanity. These individuals, contracted by private security companies (most notably, Titan), have forever tarnished the reputation of all interpreters, not just conference interpreters. Read the reports on or and weep with indignation. In Afghanistan, we see the same players, the same private companies contracted to the military. Can you or AIIC honestly say that all these people are innocent of bias, let alone far worse failings? In the absence of any such confidence, should we be entering the political world to plead their case? Whether we are treated as malinchistas, gusanos or gringos, the fact remains that if we continue to do our job in good faith, with linguistic and intellectual rigour and with totally impartial fidelity to the stated word, our reputations can emerge essentially unscathed. Can we say the same for those who have never set foot in an interpreting school and whose motives be politically coloured? And whose actions may have brought dishonour on our profession? (And I say this as one who actually supported the initial intervention in that particular country.)

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Jonathan H. SANDERS


I think it's very important to separate categories from individuals. AIIC never has and presumably never will defend the professional actions of each and every person who calls him or herself an interpreter. The fact that there have been and even are conference interpreters who have committed unethical acts does not mean that AIIC cannot defend the category of conference interpreting. It can defend the profession without condoning the actions of every individual claiming or reputed to be part of the profession.

In previous years, AIIC has broadened its scope of projects to include sectors such as national court interpreting. I assume this is in great part because whether we like it or not, the public image and working conditions of other types of interpreters do have an impact on our own professional prestige and power to command better conditions and wages. One of the most damaging and frustratingly persistent images of interpreters everywhere in the world is one whereby we are treacherous agents of a dominant or invading power. For an example I could explain why "malinchista" is still an insult in modern-day Mexico, but I'm sure that as an English interpreter with Russian in the UN system, you have plenty of personal experience with this unjust suspicion from monitoring delegates. It is in our own personal interest to combat this blanket characterization whenever it appears and that is part of what AIIC is doing in this project. The other part is to bring awareness to both interpreters in conflict areas and those who use their services about professional standards, as well as rights and responsibilities of both parties. I would encourage you to read the Conflict Field Guide that AIIC authored in tandem with FIT and Red T. ( . The provisions include, among others, not arming interpreters, not forcing them to wear military uniforms, and instructing interpreters not to do anything that contradicts their own professional or personal ethics or which might compromise their safety. My view is that publishing and recommending these standards actually protects us from being associated unwittingly with unethical actions committed by people claiming to be interpreters, or by governments claiming to employ them.

So in short, I think it's better for us to actually advocate for interpreters in conflict area as a category. Yes, there are unethical people who might claim to be part of this category as indeed there are in any category of interpreter (or human being for that matter). But this will happen regardless of what we do. The best way to cover our own backs and save the lives of as you say, "objective, innocent specialist linguists" is to face the issue head on by advocating for standards, raising awareness and urging governments to comply with their responsibilities. Or at least that's how I see it.

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Nyssa Fiona GREGORY


I do have something to say on this matter. I find this whole area extremely problematic. While no one wants to see objective, innocent specialist linguists imprisoned, tortured or put to death, what certainty can we have in AIIC that all interpreters that have worked in conflict zones have acted entirely impartially and objectively and in a manner that would be consistent with our own "western-oriented" notions of interpreter performance and integrity? We know for a fact that some of the interpreters used by US forces in Iraq were complicit in acts of torture at Abu Ghraib. In other words, they were guilty of war crimes. What do we know, in fact, of how the interpreters at Baghram jail in Afghanistan behaved, for example? Is this really an area AIIC should be getting involved in, blithely assuming the total innocence and integrity of the individuals concerned and going as far as writing official letters to heads of government calling for all such people to be granted political asylum? Or are we just assuming that because they worked for "us", they must be all right?

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